There had been great receiving tight ends before Shannon Sharpe, but it isn't too much of a stretch to say that along with Tony Gonzalez, the former seventh-round pick from Savannah State was the logical and actual predecessor to today's tight end who's more of a big receiver than a true and total fit at the old-school definition of the position. Selected in 1990 as an afterthought receiver, Sharpe morphed into a new kind of tight end, and by 1992, he was in his first Pro Bowl, having caught 53 passes for 640 yards.
From there, it just went up. Sharpe never caught fewer than 64 passes from 1993 through 2000, and his best years in Denver coincided with the Broncos' best years. Sharpe was a First-Team All-Pro in 1997 and 1998, when the franchise own their two Super Bowls.
Moving to Baltimore after the 1999 season, Sharpe helped the Ravens win their first Super Bowl in his first year there — though that team was led by one of the best defenses of all time, Sharpe was the team's leading target by far. He came back to Denver in 2002, and retired in 2003 with the most all-time catches (815), receiving yards (10,060) and receiving touchdowns (62) for a tight end.
Known for his determination — a characteristic shared with his brother, Sterling (whose career in Green Bay would also have him in the Hall had it not been shortened by injury), Sharpe is one of the Hall's best examples of how focus and determination can raise a player to a new threshold.
Sharpe's stats were amazing enough, but it's really telling to hear how offensive contemporaries view him in retrospect. "Well, he was really sort of a wide receiver playing tight end, which made him a difficult matchup," Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen told me on Friday. " There really wasn't a tight end who could run and get vertical and stretch the field like him — he was a tremendous threat. You had to respect that -- you couldn't just put a linebacker on him.
"You had to put a safety or corner out there to cover him. So, you being an extra defensive back in for coverage, that loosens it up for the running game. You had an advantage if they brought in a DB instead of another big defender. Those were some of the things that a tight end of his caliber created. He had tremendous hands, and he was a precise route-runner."
For all-time greatest receiver Jerry Rice, Sharpe's talent was simple — his ability to create matchup nightmares, and win the mental battles as well. "Well, the first advantage Shannon had was that he could out-talk anyone! But he was the best," Rice said. "He's still lifting weights like crazy — he could be a bodybuilder right now. With his speed and size, he was able to stretch the field, and he could also make those difficult catches."
Strength, speed, determination, and the ability to take the game where it had never gone before. These are the gifts Shannon Sharpe will have into the Hall of Fame.